How the Ellen Pao Case Can Advance Women

Ellen Pao lost her gender discrimination suit against venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, but her case brought gender discrimination and implicit bias into the spotlight and the forefront of business conversations. It has also brought to light how much colleagues play a role in an individual’s success.

During the trial, Harvard Business School Professor Paul A. Gompers testified as a paid witness for the defense. He testified that Kleiner Perkins did a better job of supporting women when compared with the rest of the venture capital industry. While his testimony supported Kleiner Perkins, it also emphasized how bad the industry is as a whole in terms of supporting and advancing women.

Gompers conducted a study in 2014 called Gender Effects in Venture Capital. In that study, he found that women were not performing as well as men in the venture capital industry because women were not getting the same level of support from their colleagues as men. Women receive less formal and informal mentoring and feel an implicit bias against them.

Although the focus of the Gompers’ study and the Pao case has been the venture capital environment, the same argument can be made for nearly every traditionally male dominated industry. And, the fact is that most discrimination at the senior executive and high earning level is swept under the rug through the use of negotiated exit packages with strong confidentiality language.

As a lawyer who works with businesses and senior executives, I have seen first-hand that women who make it to the top of their industries implicitly know that they are expected to accept a certain amount of bias and either find a way to work around it or take a package and move on to another gig.

I doubt Ms. Pao’s claim will inspire more women to fight the fight (especially since she lost and may have significant challenges in returning to the venture capital world). But her case has ignited a public conversation many women have been having behind closed doors for years.
We can only wait and see if the conversation will ignite action within companies. If not, we will have to just wait to see more women take the risk and open up their own firms.